The J-1 Visa is a nonimmigrant visa for the “Exchange Visitor.” Visa holders of this category secure their employment through sponsors associated with the Exchange Visitor Program designated by the U.S. State Department (DOS). Similar to professional visas, an offer of employment must be secured before any other action is taken. Individuals who qualify for the J-1 visa include secondary school, college and graduate degree students, research scholars, college professors, business trainees, flight aviation program trainees, primary and secondary school teachers, medical residents or interns receiving medical training.
There are also other alternatives within the J category. In some situations, J-1 holders may work for non-sponsor employers provided they meet eligibility requirements, which vary depending on the applicable category. J-1 research scholars are eligible to work for a non-sponsor employer in a closely-related research program for a maximum duration of six months, provided the program has been approved (written authorization required) by the original sponsor. Additionally, there is also the Practical Training Program (PTP), which allows college students and post-doctoral students to receive relevant practical training after graduation, up to eighteen (18) months for college students and thirty-six months for post-doctoral students. PTP participants do not need to obtain DOS or USCIS approval. The duration of J-1 status depends on the rules established by your particular Visitor Exchange program but may be extended in certain cases.
The J visa category also provides one advantage that no other non-immigrant visa does: It’s the only non-immigrant visa that allows employment of dependants, allowing a J-1 holders’ spouse and minor children (J-2 status) to work with USCIS authorization, provided that their income is not used to support the J-1 visa holder. The downside of the J category is that certain classes of “Exchange Visitors” are required to return to their country of last permanent residence for two years after completing their J-1 status. However, there is a waiver to this requirement which can often alleviate this side effect.